Due to the fact that highly diversified auto-parts industries could have certain positive consequences on the development of the whole industry itself, the Taiwan government has consistently encouraged its development with national policies, which includes demanding higher car-import tax and maintaining strict regulation on domestically-made parts, etc. At present there are about 81,000 persons working for the auto-related industries in Taiwan. In 1999 the total production value of all auto-related industries was about US$4.6 billion, constituting half of the total industrial production value in Taiwan.1 Workers in the auto industry have contributed to this achievement, while the market is mainly within Taiwan.
Although there are 10 auto assembly factories in Taiwan, the production of critical parts are still controlled by foreign transnational corporations (TNC) mainly from Japan and the US. These TNCs include Nissan, Honda, Ford, and Toyota. Each year the Taiwan auto companies have to buy KD parts (knock-down parts means unassembled sets of parts for assembly at an overseas destination) from and pay profit and technical fees to the TNCs. Moreover, with the market largely limited to the domestic one, the liberal policy of the government has had a deadly impact upon the industry. On average, only 300,000 to 400,000 new cars are sold each year. Consequently there is serious competition among the 10 auto assembly companies. After entering the World Trade Organisation in January 2002, the government has been more aggressive in implementing liberal policies, such as removing the regulations on domestically-made parts, reducing car import taxes, and opening car import quotas, all making the competition even more intense. Over the last ten years, the rising outflow of capital and factories to mainland China has raised yet another concern. In this situation Ching-Jen seriously worries about the future of Taiwan’s auto workers.
Organised Labour in Taiwan Auto Industries
As can be seen from Table-1 most of the workers in auto assembly companies have their own trade unions. Apart from the seven trade unions in the auto assembly companies, there are 33 unions in the parts factories. According to Taiwan’s Trade Union Law, most unions are factory-based (enterprise unions) with their own boards and have to join federations in their local counties. To date there is little connection among these auto trade unions, although they all belong to the same industrial category.
Table 1 General information of Taiwan’s auto assembly companies
Note: Motor Vehicles Committee (MVC - see below)
The organisation rate in the parts companies is very low compared to that in the assembly companies. Up to now, while seven of the ten assembly factories have established trade unions, most parts factories have no unions at all. According to government statistics, only 3.8 percent of the factories hiring more than 30 staff have established trade unions, although 20.28 percent of industrial workers have joined unions. This means that most of the small- and medium-sized enterprises do not recognise trade unions. Unfortunately, most parts companies are small- and medium-sized enterprises, so it is quite natural to expect a much lower organisation rate in this branch of the industry.
Among the 41 trade unions mentioned above, 22 are affiliated to the Motor Vehicles Committee, composed of 41 unionists under the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF)-ROCC. The main goal of this committee is to exchange information between these unions and to communicate with the trade unionists in the Confederation of Japanese Automobile Workers’ unions (JAW) every year. The Motor Vehicles Committee is a loose organisation. Nevertheless, it is the only single labour organisation that can cross enterprise borders of the auto companies.
The elements of the factory-based trade unions make it impossible to establish closer connections between them. Competition between the companies also enhances distrust among workers at different plants, making the situation worse, as most trade unionists value their company identity more than their class identity. This makes most of the auto trade unions yellow (sweetheart/company/government unions), with the result that unionists seldom have the ability to really struggle for workers’ rights. Of the 41 trade unions, no more than 10 have ever been on strike or campaigned against their employer. Only four of the trade unions have activists who really struggle for workers’ rights to deserve to be called ‘independent trade unions’.
Due to the limitations mentioned above, the Motor Vehicles Committee is not really a useful organisation for auto workers in Taiwan.
The working conditions of Taiwan auto workers
As shown in Table 2, the auto assembly workers have comparatively better working conditions. The main reason for this is the great profits of the companies; secondly is the existence of trade unions. Workers who work hard know that they should pressure trade union representatives to bargain for higher pay. That is why even in the crisis of serious competition, assembly workers still have better working conditions than most workers. In general, the workers of the assembly companies are better paid and have better benefits.
Table 2 Working conditions in five assembly factories in 2003
Source: Kuozui Ltd Co
Workers in the parts companies are in a different situation. Since the organisation rate is very low, we do not know their general situation. We obtained partial information from the existing 34 trade unions of the parts factories where we found different working conditions for assembly workers and parts workers: lower wages, less job security, more flexible working time, feeling powerless or without a trade union – these are all common in the parts factories. Table 3 shows a sample of labour conditions in four tyre companies.
Table 3 shows that with the application of complicated bonus, reward, and subsidies systems, the tyre industry could pay better wages. Companies with trade unions are the bigger ones, which means that the trade unions could ‘ask’ for better pay.
But all workers in the industry face concealed anxieties: Will the company keep profiting tomorrow? Is it possible to keep my job until I retire?
Following in the footsteps of the assembly companies, more and more parts companies are investing their capital in mainland China. This trend not only threatens auto industry workers, it also threatens the existence of trade unions because confined to one factory, they disappear once the factory is closed.
Table 3 -Labour conditions in four tyre companies US$1 = NT$35
1 In 1999, the total industrial production values of Taiwan were about US$9.4 billion.
What labour NGO Ching-Jen does for auto workers
• Provides basic information on auto companies for local unions and labour groups abroad, to help labour campaigns.
• Educates domestic workers in the concepts about TNC operation and the global economy.
• Promotes the strength of grassroots organising, communication, and strategy-sharing among local unions to raise the effectiveness of collective bargaining.
• Advances international labour solidarity, to help the world workforce to defend basic labour rights.
This essay is an edited version of a paper presented at a Conference ‘Automobile Workers in Globalising Asia’ organised by Centre for Education and Communication and Asia Monitor Resource Centre in New Delhi, 30 November – 1 December 2003